Back to previous post: Guest-blogging stint

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Eddie Izzard’s Mongrel Nation

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

December 14, 2006

Geomagnetic storm incoming
Posted by Patrick at 01:08 PM *

If your local forecast is for clear skies tonight, and your distance from the equator is the same or greater than ours, get outside and look up. You may get to see an aurora. Trust me, it’s worth going to some trouble to see.

Comments on Geomagnetic storm incoming:
#1 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 01:18 PM:

Cool, cool, cool. thanks for the "head up."

#2 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 01:37 PM:

Will do -- we got a meteor shower this morning!

#3 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 01:54 PM:

Two websites that help watch the skies:

Spaceweather. They have storm warnings, they have pictures (check out the galleries of previous auroras), they keep you updated on near-earth asteroids.

NOAA POES Aurora Activity. They show you where the aurora is (Southern Hemisphere also available). Bright red ring- good show.

No, three websites:
Heavens above. Tell it where you are, it'll tell you what you can see. Since we have a space station- it's good to watch it go by. Shuttle's up there now, too.

#4 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 02:04 PM:

I'm way too far south for the auroras, but I got the meteor shower big-time last night, out on my own deck with tons of light pollution, so I'm even on the astronomical calendar of events.

Back in the early 60s there was an aurora that was supposed to be seen as far south as Kentucky, but I didn't see it. Not for lack of staying up late and all, alas.

#5 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 02:45 PM:

Cloudy and showers here through Saturday.

#6 ::: Dave Weingart ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 02:51 PM:

Thanks for the heads up...I'm thinking that atop the bleachers in the high school field will be worth trying.

Of course, supposed to be patching fog all night, so we'll see

#7 ::: Cassie ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 03:01 PM:

Oooh, clear here, and fairly warm (keeping in mind it's December. Global warming much?) so as long as they stretch to Iowa, we're good here.
They aren't going to reach Iowa, are they?

#8 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 03:34 PM:

The Oakland weather forecast from tonight to Sunday:
Mainly cloudy with a little rain
Mostly cloudy with a passing shower
Partly cloudy and chilly
Mostly cloudy with rain possible
Partly cloudy and chilly
Clouds and limited sun


#9 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 03:41 PM:

Could be worse. It's been raining for forty days here in Scotland.

I think Noah's banned dinosaurs from the ark due to the whole fetish gear thing. So there may still be room for me.

#10 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 03:42 PM:

For auroras, darker skies make a difference the further south you go, because the aurora will be more on the horizon than overhead. But direct lights or immediate lo-glo can keep you from your eyes dark-adapting they way you'd want anywhere.

At a given latitude, some locations will be better than others- a function of the magnetic field. Southern Ontario, for example, will get auroras far more often than Northern California, even though they're at the same latitude.

Keep an eye on NOAA- it updates regularly.

If NOAA shows auroras at your location and you can't see them, your camera still might capture them. Try a 15-30 second exposure. You'll want a tripod (beanbags or beanbaggy-wrist supports also work) and a remote control or shutter delay.

If you look at This gallery of a 2001 storm you can see that in northern states / Canada visibility is great even in towns. The Silicon Valley photo wouldn't have been possible in the valley itself- one needed to go into the foothills, with a line of hills hiding the valley's lights.

#11 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 04:03 PM:

I may be far enough from the Equator, but sadly it's in the other direction.

#12 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 04:12 PM:

Right now, the Earth's magnetic field is tilted north, which works against seeing the Aurora.

The further north magnetic you are, the better your chance. Chicago, at 42N, has a much better chance than London, at 52N, because what counts is your magnetic, not Geographic latitude. Magnetically, London is 47N Mag, Chicago, 52N Mag. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan gets spectacular aurora, with an ideal combination of far north magnetic latitude and low light pollution. Indeed, on the UP, I was doing Aurora Shadow Puppets.

Bright aurora can often be seen even in cities -- the most brilliant one I ever saw was on a flight from PDX-ORD-STL on Nov 5, 2004. You could see the Aurora on landing at ORD, and at the parking lot of the St. Louis Airport.

Clickable maps are linked here.

The camera trick works even without a tripod -- hold a digital camera pointed north, expose for three-four seconds. If the image is green, then you're looking at Aurora. You may not be able to see the color, but the camera will.

This page has a simple "dial" of the solar wind and Earth's magentic field tilt (of the Bz component, the one we really care about.) As of this writing, Bz was about +9nT, which isn't promising, but it's also daylight. If, this evening, that number is well negative, that's a promising sign.

#13 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 04:20 PM:


Looks like the Australian space weather agency gives warnings. ("Space weather agencies," isn't that cool?)

My favorite aurora australis picture

#14 ::: Tania ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 05:36 PM:

Here's another link, from my former neighbors (I no longer work in the building next door). The map can be changed from the Alaska default to other views from a series of buttons on the left.

Geophysical Institute Aurora Forecast

It is finally snowing here, so though I'll be sad to miss a spectacular display, I'll take the snow.

#15 ::: Elaine ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 05:44 PM:

Is there a best time to view? Probably hopeless here in Colorado, but it would be so cool.

#16 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 06:16 PM:


Keep an eye on NOAA and spaceweather- if it's looking good for Colorado, then anytime after twilight ends might have some visible. Given that the storm has already started, ealier is likely better than later, though.

Because I live in California I haven't had too much experience with them (twice seen from the ground in California, several times seen from airplanes further north), but I do know they can come and go. The best one I saw from the ground lasted 1 1/2 hours, where in just minutes it could change from an ordinary sky to spikes of light to subtle ripples and back to invisibility.

#17 ::: Lorax ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 07:22 PM:

In 2001 there was an aurora visible from Tucson, AZ. I didn't see it -- with the mountains to the north and the orange glow of Phoenix confusing things if you avoided the mountains, but I know people who did. That probably isn't going to happen again even at the next solar max, however, because aurorae in the Western Hemisphere in general may become less frequent. The magnetic North Pole is moving very rapidly in the general direction of the geographic North Pole, and in a couple decades it will be on the other side, in Siberia rather than Canada, if the current motion continues.

#18 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 07:33 PM:


I have no interest in any radiation storm that doesn't result in atomic mutant grasshoppers.

#19 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 08:15 PM:

Update. Bz now -14.5nT, that's getting into the promising range. Geomagentic K index now an 8, implying aurora down to 45N Magnetic.

#20 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 08:33 PM:

It's at times like this that I regret living so far south. But only for a minute.

#21 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 09:06 PM:

According to the NOAA map (last updated just a few minutes ago), here in Massachusetts I ought to be at the southern edge of the good visibility area, but I can't see anything (except stars, so it can't be all that cloudy). Might be too much light pollution.

#22 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 10:41 PM:

Bz still negative, Kp still 9. First reports from 43N (lower Michigan) and 40N (Ohio), so we're looking at current visibility to 50N Magnetic, at least in the eastern time zone.

Alas, I'm at 49N Magnetic, and it's cloudy.

Assuming this level holds for the next three-four hours, it should head southwards a bit as the sun gets further away.

On this map, if you're north of the KP7 curve and have clear skies, you've got a very good chance of seeing the Aurora, and if you're north of the KP5 line and it is clear, you're not reading this, you're outside gawking.

West coasters will have to wait a couple of hours, but Seattle looks solid, and Portland doesn't look too unlikely.

#23 ::: Joyce Reynolds-Ward ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2006, 10:41 PM:

Bah. We've got a good, old-fashioned wind and rainstorm here (if it were on, say, the East Coast, about Florida, say, it might could be called mebbe a baby hurricane). Trees down. Powerlines down. Blizzard conditions in the Cascades.

Aurora? Heck, just try the wind and rain. Will need to power down soon as we're approaching the bad wind time.

(grumpy because I always seem to miss the good Aurora shows!).

#24 ::: glinda ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 12:24 AM:

Erik @ 22:

but Seattle looks solid

Solid rain. Very very very stormy; winds (not gusts, the steady winds) are at about 40mph right now; power's been flickering all afternoon and evening, and I've got the oil lamps and candles lit.

*sulk* I'd have loved to see the light show...

#25 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 08:16 AM:

I doubt I'll be able to see anything (Perth, Western Australia - far too far north). I will, however, keep an ear peeled for reports of giant carnivorous orchids, or mass blindness.

If there's anyone reading this in Tasmania, switch off the PC, switch off the lights, and go outside and look south. The Taswegians may actually be able to see something (and they're all isolated on a nice island if it does come to mass blindness and giant carnivorous orchids).

#26 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 08:47 AM:

Didn't even try last night due to our building's outdoor lights, the cold, and predicted clouds, but 1) my 2006 Weather Calendar has a fabulous aurora photo for December and 2) I managed to dream I saw it (from some utterly unlikely place).

#27 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 09:15 AM:

Nothing here. Maybe too far south, maybe light pollution; either would be sufficient.

Major frowny face.

#28 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 10:08 AM:

I went out a little after midnight and it was too cloudy. Rats! I've never seen the Northern Lights and have always wanted to.

#29 ::: oliviacw ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 12:13 PM:

The power outage in large parts of the greater Portland area last night probably would have helped visibility, if it hadn't been for the accompanying clouds and wind and rain. (Gusts up to 60mph in urban areas, 99mph measured on Mt Hood).

I'd have rather seen the aurora. :(

#30 ::: Red (Chris Holdredge) ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 12:21 PM:

For all of us who got yesterday's heads-up too late, there's still some hope for tonight and tomorrow. I just got a fresh alert from the IPS email list at 10:30 Eastern this morning, so while activity's apparently declining it won't be back to normal any time soon. Better yet, is reporting "An X1-flare from sunspot 930 on Dec. 14th probably hurled a new cloud in our direction. (Confirmation from SOHO is pending.) If so, it would arrive on Dec. 16th and re-energize geomagnetic activity. Stay tuned!"

#31 ::: Misty ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 12:31 PM:

Not only am I too far south for the aurora, but I haven't been able to see the Geminids for the last two nights because of dense fog.

It's as if the natural world has revoked my stargazing privileges. *pout*

#32 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 12:44 PM:

I was out late last night, bicycling through illuminated and secluded areas, but did not see any aurora, unfortunately.

The best aurora I'd ever seen had been in June of 1974 (if I'm recalling the date correctly). Because it was warm, it was possible to stay out for hours and watch. There was no color, but it covered a wide swatch of the sky. This was in upstate NY.

Did I say best? I should say only. But it was spectacular.

#33 ::: PixelFish ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 03:24 PM:

My friend just linked me these:

Auroras from space....

#34 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 03:30 PM:

Luckily for us, the most spectacular astronomical events coming up are known to the second (time and space). Here's the location of the next 19 years of Total Solar Eclipses. (Or the next thousand years worth for the singularitan optimists.)

Total eclipses (partials are nothing- they share only the name*) are one event where once you see it, you understand exactly why people told you "No matter how good we tell you it is, it'll be better than that. You'll understand."

I've seen two. They're the most stunning, numinous, beautiful and unearthly experience I've had. And they give you an excuse to travel where you might not have expected to go,** and meet with an interesting crowd of fellow addicts.

* The difference between partials and totals? Eclipse chasers usually end up using analogies like "the difference between a kiss and a lover" because those are the only analogies that work.

** The deeply dedicated chasers I know have camped in Libyan deserts (2006), and are already planning their Mongolian (2008) or Easter Island (2010) trips. The dedicated with money have even seen ones like 2003 (Antarctica).

#35 ::: Paul ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 06:14 PM:

It was unfortunately too cloudy here last night for me to see it, although I know people in, for example, Milwaukee managed to see it just fine.

#36 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 08:36 PM:

Davey and I have promised each other that someday we'll go to Fairbanks AK in March. Why? Because that's past the worst of the winter, and Fairbanks is \peak/ aurora territory -- if you go north from there you're likely to get a view from behind, which I'm told can be interesting but not as spectacular. There's a reason the U of AK at Fairbanks is the only(*) school with its own rocket range -- they take all sorts of interesting soundings.

(*) claim not checked against other schools. Void where prohibited. Contents sold -- no, wait, that was another thread.

#37 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 09:08 PM:

Elaine in Colorado: Did you have any luck last night? I didn't read this post until today, sadly. Where are you in the state (if you don't mind saying), so I can compare my chances here in Boulder?

I've been bopping around downtown tonight but haven't seen anything. But then again, downtown.

#38 ::: JennR ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2006, 11:08 PM:

CHip @ 36: On the night that ErikO was doing shadow puppets using the Aurora, we decided that the view was better if we looked south, rather than north. The entire northern sky was green, and it wasn't moving very much. Most of the action was straight up (lying down on the ground was a good way of seeing that), and as the night progressed, we eventually shifted around so that we were looking toward the southern horizon.

#39 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2006, 12:38 AM:

Cloudy here in the Bay Area, so nothing showing.

The one time I saw the aurora borealis, Marci and I were driving back from the Worldcon in Winnipeg, crossing North Dakota/Montana IIRC. I saw this glow in the northwestern sky, looking like glow from a city -- asked M if it could be an aurora, and from her knowledge of them from living in Alaska, said it wasn't.

Then it began doing the spikes and sheets thing. We pulled off the road and watched it for a good hour or so.

Not as amazing as the total solar eclipse I got to on the Wash/Oregon border (not all the best comments on the difference are sexual, Kathryn -- I liken it to Mark Twain's "the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug"). A cool thing to me, not generally commented on: we were in a river valley, and there was a visible fog-bank (very thin) right where the terminator went along. This makes perfect sense, mind you -- I just had never heard of anyone commenting on it. Maybe they were all too busy watching the sky?

#40 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2006, 02:00 AM:

I apologise for my ignorant aggrieved post back at #11. Thank you Kathryn from Sunnyvale at #13. i'm probablyt too close to the Equator anyhow, and it was seriously overcast.

#41 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2006, 03:13 AM:

Tom: I remember that total eclipse -- my parents offered to send me to friends of theirs who lived in Oregon. Nervous about leaving home (I was only ten), I said no. I've often wished I'd chosen otherwise.

#42 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2006, 05:37 PM:

Well, given the record breaking storm in Seattle Thursday night, no aurora viewing here. Everyone from the sf community seems to be ok, though some of them are just now getting power back.


#43 ::: Tania ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2006, 07:46 PM:

ChiP - That's what was in our notes when I used to give campus tours, way back in my undergrad days. If you are here in March, the ice carving festivities are worth checking out.

Kathryn - Now I have another thing to put on my list for why I must visit Svalbard - an eclipse!

#44 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 06:38 PM:

APoD's picture yesterday, taken near Des Moines, of the aurora last week

#45 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2006, 03:52 AM:

And the picture gallery of that storm keeps growing.

Tomm @39,
Yes, but what if you then wanted to explain the difference between lightning and a lightning bug, to someone who had seen neither?

#46 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2006, 04:57 AM:

I note that it is theoretically possible to see both the 2008 total solar eclipse and the start of the 2008 Worldcon. The last of the jetlag, the souvenirs of Novosibirsk*, the memories of unearthly light: all will add to your Worldcon experience, providing frisson otherwise requiring experienced lawful-neutral chemists.

* Better weather than Nunavut, Greenland, or Novaya Zemlya (home of Tsar Bomba!). Or go to Hami in China- 20 seconds less eclipse, but the driest weather- first seeing the easternmost tip of Kazakzstan and the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts, as they're all in the neighborhood.

#47 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2006, 12:52 PM:

Kathryn from Sunnyvale: Thanks for the link to the picture gallery. I see a couple of pictures posted by people from Rochester, so at least it was seen here. A photo by someone in Ithaca (more or less in the same area, for the purpose of global phenomena) states that to the eye the aurora had been very dim, but was brought out in the photo by a long exposure time.

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.